Yesterday, a new light lit up on my dashboard. Turns out I needed a new alternator. Great. $500 down the drain (well, nearly). After discovering this, I made an appointment to bring my car in this morning to get it replaced - I couldn't afford to be stranded somewhere this weekend since Darling Man was going to be otherwise engaged and unable to come rescue me.
The garage was across the street from the mall, so I decided to wait wandering the mall. If you know me at all, you know this is a strange decision for me. I hate malls. They always feel slightly seedy to me. But it was a rainy morning and the mall did have a bookstore, so I dropped my car off and set out in the drizzle for the bookstore.
Except it didn't open for another hour.
Seeing as the mall was practically empty, I decided to walk for that hour. I made a complete circuit, upstairs and down. There were quite a few empty storefronts. Lots of clothing stores (with pretty hideous clothes in them). A couple of interesting shops, and in the center, three high-end jewelry stores!
Making the rounds with me were older couples walking hand-in-hand and yuppie moms striding by, checking exercise off their list of things to do today. Taking it all in were the mannequins with their uncertain hands and heads lopped off just above the nose. Somehow, the mannequins with no heads at all were more comforting, crowded around the glass doors as if waiting to greet you at a party.
It was oddly peaceful walking around - until the music began at 9:23. "Mall Music" began playing, not-too-loud, but enough to be aware of it. And as the various shops got ready for their day, they added their own soundtracks until a veritable caucophany was pounding on my ears. At last, the grills began rolling up and the stores were open for business.
I went into the bookstore and began wandering the aisles of books, stopping to pull one off here and there and putting it back. I was looking at a book on discovering your inner strengths when a somewhat bedraggled-looking black man came down my aisle. I stepped back to let him pass. He passed me, then stopped and looked back at me. He said, "It's a shame the people where I just came from don't have time to read. They're too busy trying to survive."
I looked at him. "Where did you just come from?" I asked.
The man I was talking to had fairly recently returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. A career military man for the last 32 years, he was cruelly wounded on his last tour. Took a bullet to the gut, through his body armor. He pulled up his shirt and showed me a mostly-healed scar that covered most of his belly.
I asked him if he drank coffee. He said that he did, so I invited him to have a cup with me and we talked. He told me about his career in the military, the people he'd seen, the places he'd been. He served in Desert Storm and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saw lots of amazing things - and lots of terrible things. He came home to his wife and three daughters, finally able to be with them, so proud of them. His oldest daughter has a 3.9 GPA and is heading off to study nursing next fall. She'd managed to land a scholarship. But the family itself was on hard times. He was going to counseling sessions three times a week and was having a hard time finding a job that would allow that much absenteeism.
Perhaps I'm a sucker. Perhaps not. I gave him $20 and thanked him for his service to our country. And wished him luck. He thanked me and shook my hand. He went his way and I went mine - but his story and the realization that he was not the only one in that boat was quite sobering. This war is different from the ones that have gone before. While we have a lot of casualties, we also have a lot of survivors - and what happens to them when they come home isn't always a happy ending. Some of them have very visible scars, and other have scars that aren't visible at all.
If you meet a soldier, thank him. Let him know that his sacrifice was not in vain.